A few days before hurricane Irma struck the northeast Caribbean, the literary world commemorated the 150th anniversary of the death of the notorious French poet Charles Baudelaire. Or rather, it didn’t, for compared to the fanfare with which similar occasions have been greeted recently (Dickens at 200, Cervantes and Shakespeare at 400, etc), the mood surrounding Baudelaire’s landmark could be summed up as one of general apathy. With the exception of a film here, a brief article there, no major events were organized to celebrate the life and works of the original “cursed poet,” a conspicuous indifference that contrasts starkly with the reputation of a man who until recently had enjoyed cult status.
Baudelaire brings together in a single character just about every stereotype connected to the bohemian lifestyle, the brooding attitude, the debauched morals, the dandy looks and financial penuries to go with one sulky, incendiary yet groundbreaking oeuvre Le Fleur du mal—The Flowers of Evil. Compiled over the author’s entire adulthood, The Flowers of Evil gained immediate notoriety when it was presented in 1857, drawing heavy criticism and ultimately even a lawsuit for affronting public decency. It was the beginning of a troubled publishing history that over the following ten years would cement Baudelaire’s place among the most infamous creators of his generation.
A deeply personal book, teeming with literary influences and with Baudelaire’s near-obsessive concern with form, The Flowers of Evil is the gateway into the poet’s inner world, a universe of individualism and defiance in the face of convention, of insatiable lust for earthly pleasures and of consuming remorse, of self-made horrors and candid, sometimes even brutal, honesty.
These are the elements that most manifestly shape the first section of the book, “Spleen and Ideal.” Baudelaire sets the tone in his often-cited opening poem, “To the Reader,” which immediately challenges convention by collapsing the virtual space between writer and reader. Addressing the latter directly (using the informal tu rather than vous), Baudelaire inserts that reader in a sordid reality governed by idiocy and mischief, a world that pertains to the Devil and in which both the writer and the reader are protagonists in equal measure. Over the course of ten four-verse stanzas Baudelaire goes through the whole catalog of sins that cloud our physical existence only to give pride of place among all evils to ennui, a listless form of world-weariness which, like a drug, consumes the soul. As if placing ennui over, say, rape or murder in the hierarchy of evils weren’t enough, he proceeds to turn to the “hypocrite reader” and, with a knowing wink that says “you know what I mean, you’ve been there, you got the T-shirt,” he accuses said reader of being “my likeness, my brother.”
At a time when public decency and decorum were matters of great import—twerking to the tune of reggaeton would certainly have landed you straight in the dungeons of Paris in the 1800s—it isn’t surprising that this piece, this volume, this message was deemed scandalous. Just over two months after publication, Baudelaire was ordered by the French courts to pay a fine of 300 francs (which he could ill afford), and to remove six poems from the collection (which probably weighted more heavily on his heart for it meant he was forced to break the its perfect structure).
To the modern sensibility the 100 poems that comprise the first edition of The Flowers of Evil hardly seem worth so much outrage. Sure, there’s a deliberate effort to map a journey through the depths of the most hedonistic, and often darkest, walks of life, which invariably takes Baudelaire into sensitive subjects. For instance, he’s never shy to admit his taste for intoxicating substances—from wine to opium or hashish—or his nearly compulsive tendency to find comfort in the sexual favors of a number of companions of ill repute. But while these matters would have been considered tasteless at the time, they wouldn’t have merited Baudelaire a hefty fine. What did, if we go by the poems banned by the court, were explicit accounts of lesbianism, violent behavior and, in the case of the poem “Le Léthé,” a passionate love letter, either to his mistress or to his bottle of Laudanum (or both).
Though “Le Léthé” counts among the poems banned by the authorities in France until 1949, the oblivion it so desperately seeks to achieve (“I want to sleep, sleep rather than live”) might well refer to the lassitude, the ennui, that Baudelaire fears (and despises) so much. Because ultimately The Flowers of Evil articulates what in Baudelaire’s eyes is the great tragedy of life: caught within the tight constraints of our lifetime and our body, we are destined to seek fulfillment through the senses. Baudelaire goes to great expense to try every form of hedonistic pleasure, which often confines him to the horrors of disease, poverty and heartbreak. Yet even in the face of unhindered enjoyment he finds he’s unable to achieve happiness or even satisfaction because what his soul really longs for is an unattainable ideal: Beauty (yes, with a capital B).
In the age of the hashtag Baudelaire’s “Spleen and Ideal” could often be cast in the lot of #MiddleClassCrisis but despite occasionally slipping into a melodramatic and somewhat self-indulgent dynamic, The Flowers of Evil still retains much of its allure. Time has eroded its shock value (though moments of misogyny, anti-Semitism and violence are still controversial), and perhaps that explains why so little attention was paid to this particular anniversary, but this has only highlighted the merit of the text itself. Baudelaire’s virtuosity with verse is absolutely staggering, as the sonnet is reinvented innumerable times over the course of the 163 poems that comprise the collection’s final, posthumous, edition (1868).
Once Baudelaire manages to escape the cavern of his own condition his poetry gains volume, texture and perspective. Nowhere is this more evident than in the second section of the collection, “Parisian Scenes,” added to the second edition (1861), which shifts the focus outward and dissects the entrails of the city, portraying it in an unfiltered, yet also somewhat sinister, light. Much has been made of the 18 poems encompassed in this section, which are loosely arranged around the urban landscape of Paris from sunup to sundown. Baudelaire consciously evokes images from the canon only to shatter expectations with conflicting parallels that emphasize the difference between the modern condition and all things past. He still fails to achieve empathy in his poems, but his depiction of poverty and change, of decrepitude and also of human endeavor successfully advance a new genre in Western literature, that of the city.
And yet, it’s Baudelaire’s exceptional capacity to squeeze a couplet of flow-stemming beauty into every single poem of his oeuvre, regardless of whether he’s depicting a seedy cityscape or a lustful encounter, which makes it worth celebrating The Flowers of Evil this and any other year. At his best, in poems like “Le Léthé,” “Le balcon,” “Le cygne,” he allows the balance, the rhythm, the grace of his verse to flourish—and that is what will always make Baudelaire relevant. Which, in the end, is only appropriate, for if his quest for Beauty put him at odds with society in his lifetime, it has also, in the end, ensured his enduring fame long after his death.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday 4 November, 2017.